A global team of researchers arrived Thursday in the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.
The 10-member team sent to Wuhan by the World Health Organization was approved by President Xi Jinping's government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of WHO.
Scientists suspect the virus that has killed more than 1.9 million people since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in China's southwest. The ruling Communist Party, stung by complaints it allowed the disease to spread, says the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but international scientists reject that.
Two members of the team did not land in Wuhan on Thursday because they had tested positive for coronavirus antibodies and were being retested in Singapore, WHO said in a statement on Twitter.
The rest of the team arrived at the Wuhan airport and walked through a makeshift clear plastic tunnel into the airport. The researchers, who wore face masks, were greeted by airport staff in full protective gear, including masks, goggles and full body suits.
They will undergo a two-week quarantine as well as a throat swab test and an antibody test for COVID-19, according to CGTN, the English-language channel of state broadcaster CCTV. They are to start working with Chinese experts via video conference while in quarantine.
The team includes virus and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.
A government spokesman said this week they will “exchange views” with Chinese scientists but gave no indication whether they would be allowed to gather evidence.
China rejected demands for an international investigation after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the virus's spread, which plunged the global economy into its deepest slump since the 1930s.
After Australia called in April for an independent inquiry, Beijing retaliated by blocking imports of Australian beef, wine and other goods.
One possibility is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan, one of the WHO team members, zoologist Peter Daszak of the U.S. group EcoHealth Alliance, told The Associated Press in November.
A single visit by scientists is unlikely to confirm the virus's origins; pinning down an outbreak's animal reservoir is typically an exhaustive endeavor that takes years of research including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
“The government should be very transparent and collaborative," said Shin-Ru Shih, director at the Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections at Taiwan's Chang Gung University.
The Chinese government has tried to stir confusion about the virus's origin. It has promoted theories, with little evidence, that the outbreak might have started with imports of tainted seafood, a notion rejected by international scientists and agencies.
"The WHO will need to conduct similar investigations in other places,” an official of the National Health Commission, Mi Feng, said Wednesday.
Some members of the WHO team were en route to China a week ago but had to turn back after Beijing announced they hadn't received valid visas.
That might have been a “bureaucratic bungle,” but the incident "raises the question if the Chinese authorities were trying to interfere,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a health expert at the University of Sydney.
A possible focus for investigators is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city where the outbreak first emerged. One of China's top virus research labs, it built an archive of genetic information about bat coronaviruses after the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
According to WHO's published agenda for its origins research, there are no plans to assess whether there might have been an accidental release of the coronavirus at the Wuhan lab, as some American politicians, including President Donald Trump, have claimed.
A “scientific audit” of Institute records and safety measures would be a "routine activity,” said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. He said that depends on how willing Chinese authorities are to share information.
“There’s a big element of trust here,” Woolhouse said.
An AP investigation found the government imposed controls on research into the outbreak and bars scientists from speaking to reporters.
The coronavirus's exact origin may never be traced because viruses change quickly, Woolhouse said.
Although it may be challenging to find precisely the same COVID-19 virus in animals as in humans, discovering closely related viruses might help explain how the disease first jumped from animals and clarify what preventive measures are needed to avoid future epidemics.
Scientists should focus instead on making a “comprehensive picture” of the virus to help respond to future outbreaks, Woolhouse said.
“Now is not the time to blame anyone," Shih said. “We shouldn’t say, it’s your fault.”
South Korea’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a 20-year prison term for former President Park Geun-hye over bribery and other crimes as it wrapped up a historic corruption case that marked a striking fall from grace for the country’s first female leader and conservative icon.
The ruling means Park, who was ousted from office and arrested in 2017, could potentially serve a combined 22 years behind bars, following a separate conviction for illegally meddling in her party’s candidate nominations ahead of parliamentary elections in 2016.
But the finalizing of her prison term also makes her eligible for a special presidential pardon, a looming possibility as the country’s deeply split electorate approaches the next presidential election in March 2022.
President Moon Jae-in, a liberal who won the presidential by-election following Park’s removal, has yet to directly address the possibility of freeing his predecessor. Moon has recently seen his approval ratings sink to new lows over economic problems, political scandals and rising coronavirus infections.
At least one prominent member of Moon’s Democratic Party, chairman Lee Nak-yon, has raised the idea of pardoning Park and another imprisoned former president, Lee Myung-bak, who’s serving a 17-year term over his own corruption charges, as a gesture for “national unity.”
Park, 68, has described herself a victim of political revenge. She has refused to attend her trials since October 2017 and didn’t attend Thursday’s ruling. Her lawyer didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Moon’s office didn’t have an immediate response to the ruling.
Park, the daughter of slain military dictator Park Chung-hee, was convicted of colluding with her longtime confidante, Choi Soon-sil, to take millions of dollars in bribes and extortion money from some of the country’s largest business groups, including Samsung, while she was in office from 2013 to 2016.
She was also indicted on charges of accepting illegally monthly funds from her spy chiefs that were diverted out of the agency’s budget.
Following weekslong protests by millions, Park was impeached by lawmakers in December 2016 and officially removed from office in March 2017 after the Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment.
It wasn’t immediately clear how Thursday’s ruling would affect the legal saga of billionaire Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong. The 52-year-old chairman of Samsung Electronics is facing a ruling at the Seoul High Court next week in a retrial over charges that he bribed Park and Choi to win government support for a 2015 merger between two Samsung affiliates that helped strengthen his control over the country’s largest business group.
Prosecutors are seeking a nine-year prison term for Lee, who has been separately indicted on charges of stock price manipulation, breach of trust and auditing violations in relation to the merger. Lee’s lawyers have portrayed him as a victim of presidential power abuse and described the 2015 deal was part of “normal business activity.”
Choi is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence.
Park originally faced a prison term of more than 30 years before the Supreme Court sent her cases back to a lower court in 2019.
The Seoul High Court in 2018 had sentenced her to 25 years in prison after reviewing her of bribery, extortion, abuse of power and other convictions together.
But the Supreme Court in October 2019 ordered the Seoul High Court to deal with Park’s bribery charge separately from other charges, based on a law requiring so for cases involving a president or other elected officials, even when the alleged crimes are committed together.
The High Court had handed Park a five-year term over the spy fund charges in July 2019, but the Supreme Court also ordered a retrial on the case in November, instructing the lower court to more broadly apply a charge of causing losses in state funds.
Prosecutors appealed after the Seoul High Court handed Park a 20-year term in July last year after merging the two cases.
If Park gets to fully serve her term, she will be released in 2039 at the age of 87.
YouTube has suspended U.S. President Donald Trump’s channel for at least a week amid concerns over “ongoing potential for violence,” making it the latest platform to limit the president’s online activities.
The Google-owned platform said it removed content that was uploaded on January 12 from the Donald J. Trump channel for inciting violence, although it was not immediately clear which videos in question were in violation.
“After careful review, and in light of concerns about the ongoing potential for violence, we removed new content uploaded to the Donald J. Trump channel and issued a strike for violating our policies for inciting violence,” a YouTube spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Under the suspension, Trump's channel is temporarily prevented from uploading new videos or live streams for at least seven days, although the channel remains live, YouTube said.
Comments would be indefinitely disabled on the channel, YouTube said. Under YouTube’s policies, a second strike would result in a two-week suspension, while a third strike would get the account banned permanently.
The move to curtail Trump's social media activity comes after a mob of his supporters, urged on by his rhetoric, stormed the Capitol last week to try to stop Congress from certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s win.
Tech companies have moved to suspend Trump's online postings, with Facebook and Instagram suspending Trump at least until the end of his term and Twitter permanently banning his account. Other sites, including Reddit and Snapchat have also banned Trump. Online shopping platform Shopify has pulled Trump stores off its platform.
Companies like Apple and Google have also moved to ban Parler, a social networking site popular among Trump supporters, from their app stores. Parler’s site also went offline this week after Amazon ceased to provide hosting services to the company.
“A minimum of seven days is an important and necessary first step by YouTube, and we hope they will make it permanent,” said Jim Styer, CEO of media rating firm Common Sense Media.
“While it is disappointing that it took a Trump-incited attack on our Capitol to get here, it appears that all the major platforms are finally beginning to step up and take this important issue seriously and that policymakers and the public are committed to holding them accountable,” he said.
The sun’s golden rays fall on Goa’s smooth, sandy beaches every evening, magical as ever but strangely quiet and lonely. This holiday season, few visitors are enjoying the celebrated sunsets in the Indian party hotspot.
The unspoken fear of the coronavirus is sapping Goa’s vibrant beach shacks and noisy bars of their lifeblood.
A Portuguese colony until 1961, this western Indian state usually comes alive in December and January, its tourism-led economy booming with foreign travelers and chartered flights bringing in hordes of vacationers.
Over the past decade, Goa had been transforming from a seasonal mecca for both hippy backpackers and rich vacationers to a second home destination for India’s middle class. Construction was booming, raising worries over the impact on fragile environments. Apartments overlooking the sea, on river fronts or surrounded by forests have been in great demand.
The pandemic and the ensuing travel restrictions have changed everything, possibly forever.
Along the popular beaches in North Goa from Candolim to Calangute to Morjim, many landmark coffee shops, tattoo parlors and shack bars with sunbeds have shut permanently. Nightlife in popular party hubs has died.
Seema Rajgarh, 37, is a lonely figure on nearly deserted Utorda beach in South Goa, her blue sari set against the expanse of the Arabian sea as she hawks jewelry made of beads and stones. None of the handful of domestic tourists is interested in buying them.
On good days during the holiday season, the mother of three girls, the youngest not yet two years old, said she used to make 2,000 rupees ( $27).
Now, times are bleak.
“Some days, I make barely 200 rupees ($2.7), not enough to even buy milk and food for my children,” she said.
Rajgahr's husband, a cook, lost his job during the nation-wide lockdown imposed in March to contain the spread of the coronavirus infections. He remains unemployed.
School fees for the children are long overdue. Rent is three months behind.
“This virus has devastated our lives,” Rajgarh said.
In 2019, more than 8 million tourists visited Goa, including more than 930,000 foreign tourists. Some 800 chartered flights arrived from Russia, Ukraine, the UK and Japan among other countries, according to the state tourism department.
As of August, only 1.1 million had visited, including just over 280,000 foreign tourists.
An official report on the impact of COVID-19 on Goa released in December estimated a loss of nearly $1 billion for the tourism industry due to the lockdown in April-May. Potential job losses are expected to be the range of 35% to 58%. More than onein-three of Goa's 1.6 million people work in tourism.
Goa has accounted for over 51,000 of India's more than 10 million reported coronavirus cases, with 749 deaths. The lingering aftermath of the abrupt disruption in economic activity has tempted many business owners to call it quits.
Sitting at home last summer during the lockdown, designer Suman Bhat, whose luxury label “Lola by SumanB'' with its flowing draped silhouettes is popular among Bollywood celebrities, struggled over whether to shut down her flagship brand store in Goa's capital Panjim or wait out the slump in sales.
Bhat managed to retain her workers but had to give up her beloved retail space, moving to a less costly location in August.
“It was a hard goodbye for me. You put in so much money into the business to create a customer experience –- and that is completely taken away from you. There is no way for someone to see, touch and feel your product anymore,” she said.
Bhat says her workers are exhausted by the new routines of sanitizing, testing and worry. With the pandemic's end still not in sight, the future remains uncertain.
“Can my clothing be evening wear when there is no evening to go to ? Is it fair to ask people to pay that kind of money when everybody is trying to save up ?” she asked herself.
“Everyone is just exhausted. You don’t know when a worker will say he has fever. What do you do? Shut down everything? Tell everyone to get tested, sanitize and spray everything? You are in problem solving mode all the time,” she said.
Months after the lockdown began to ease, Goa is showing signs of life. Domestic tourist arrivals surged during the year-end holidays. Casinos have been reopened and visitors are no longer required to show negative coronavirus test reports, unlike in most other Indian states.
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But things are hardly back to normal.
Yoga teacher Sharanya Narayanan is struggling to make sense of what has been lost.
Narayanan, 34, came to Goa from Mumbai in 2008 to perform aerial acrobatics at a club and has stayed on to make it her home.
She was teaching in multiple locations but had to switch to virtual lessons during the lockdown. When wellness centers were allowed to reopen in August, only one of her jobs came back — her own private class.
“The pandemic has changed everybody’s life – including mine,” she said.
“I miss the sense of anonymity that I enjoyed earlier in Goa. That every time I didn’t have the same set of people to meet, it was always changing, evolving so I was able to recreate myself without a sense of stagnation,” she said. “It is the transient nature of things that is so appealing about Goa.”
India has started shipping COVID-19 vaccines to multiple cities, four days ahead of the nationwide inoculation drive.
The first consignment of vaccines developed by the Serum Institute of India left the Indian city of Pune on Tuesday. The vaccines rolled out from Serum Institute of India’s facility in temperature-controlled trucks to the city’s airport from where they were loaded into private air carriers for distribution all over the country.
Civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri called the shipping of vaccines a “momentous mission.”
Beginning Saturday, India will start the massive undertaking of inoculating an estimated 30 million doctors, nurses and other front-line workers. The effort will then turn to inoculating around 270 million people who are either older than 50 or have secondary health conditions that raise their risks of dying from COVID-19.
The first vaccine shipments contain the COVISHIELD vaccine made by the Serum Institute and developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.
India's drug regulator has also approved for emergency use a homegrown vaccine, Bharat Biotech’s COVAXIN. Medical groups and others have raised concern about the drug being approved with scant evidence of its effectiveness. It’s still unclear when and where COVAXIN will be distributed.
India has the second-most COVID-19 infections in the world, after the US Since the pandemic began it has confirmed more than 10.4 million cases and over 150,000 deaths.